ABA calls for bar admission of undocumented law grads

  • Thomas Kim addressing the ABA House of Delegates

Suspended, expelled or disciplined? No. Criminal history? No. Fired from a job for dishonesty? No. 

Status of U.S. Citizenship . . .

These are questions that most bar candidates encounter on their character and fitness application. How a candidate answers the last question could prevent them from being admitted to the practice of law, depending on which state bar they apply to.  

For law student Thomas Kim, who wants to practice law in the state of Oregon, his presence in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant will bar him from admission. But a recent resolution, championed by Kim and passed by the American Bar Association, may soon change that.

At the ABA’s annual meeting in New York, the ABA House of Delegates approved a resolution that urges Congress to allow state courts to permit undocumented immigrants seeking legal status to obtain a law license.

“This resolution on which my team and I worked diligently lets undocumented students, as well as documented students, know that America is still a land of opportunity,” Kim said. “Passing of this resolution reminds me that I can continue to make substantive, positive impact in my community and in this country.”

Kim was born in Korea and entered the U.S. legally with his family as a teenager. He was captain of his cross-country team, a speaker at his high school graduation and was the first in his family to attend college. Then, in 2011, he discovered that his family’s green card application had been denied.

Although he was no longer eligible for federal financial aid, Kim worked his way through college and set his sights on becoming a lawyer to help other immigrant families. Kim received a full-tuition scholarship to Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where he is a rising third-year student.

Not all delegates supported the resolution. Jack Long of the State Bar of Georgia argued that undocumented immigrants were in violation of the law, similar to other bar applicants who receive a DUI while applying to the bar. Long also expressed concern that law graduates with undocumented status are barred from certain employment opportunities.

“How can we ask lawyers tasked with upholding the law, advocate for admission to our state bars those who are in open and notorious violation of it,” Long said. 

But Long’s view was in the minority. Other lawyers stood up at the hearing to voice their support for the resolution, including Andrew Schpak, who is the president of the county bar where Kim hopes to practice.

“I want people like Mr. Kim practicing and working from the inside to make a difference and have us carefully consider these important questions about immigration and about the right to practice in our profession,” Schpak said.

The issue of Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since childhood) entering the legal profession impacts real people, John Weber, a Law Student Division Delegate from Kentucky said. The resolution, he added, sends a strong message that the ABA supports these people and those who would otherwise be qualified to be admitted to the bar.

“All that we ask is that this will allow students who are otherwise qualified to be admitted to the bar in the state and the country that is their home,” Weber said.

Seven states including California, Florida and New York have already begun admitting undocumented immigrants to the state bar. The ABA resolution will serve as a guideline for other states to follow.

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